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| 16 minutes read

Episode 41 - Sarah-Jane Howitt of Weightmans on what effective, data-driven Business Development looks like close up

There is a consensus that data can be used more impactfully by legal marketers and BD professionals. The fact that data is important is undisputed, however, the best practice for actually using data day-to-day as part of marketing and BD efforts is not as well understood. 

We're lucky to be discussing that with Sarah-Jane Howitt, Partner at Weightmans on this edition of the CMO Series. Sarah-Jane is responsible for the firm's client relationship management, new business creation and communications and joins Charles Cousins to talk about their data-driven approach to effective BD.

Sarah-Jane and Charles explore:

  • Weightmans’ approach to data and how it’s changed since Sarah-Jane joined the firm
  • Why a data-driven approach is a strength for the firm when it is such a challenge for many other firms
  • What it took to make data available & useful across the firm
  • How BD & Marketing professionals at Weightmans use data day-to-day
  • The interactions lawyers and partners have with data
  • The other ways the firm is using data today that are really valuable
  • Advice to CMOs looking to make data one of their strengths


Intro: Welcome to the Passle podcast CMO series. 

Charles: Hello and welcome to the Passel podcast, where we discuss all things legal, business development and marketing. Today we are taking a close look at what effective data driven business development looks like. The importance of data is undisputed. However, the best practice for actually using data day to day as part of marketing and BD efforts is not as well understood. To dive into this topic in a little more detail, we are very lucky to be joined by Sarah-Jane Howitt, Partner at Weightmans and responsible for the firm's client relationship management, new business and communications. Welcome, Sarah-Jane. How's it going? 

Sarah-Jane: Good, thank you. Good to be here. And nice to be able to talk about this sort of thing for a change, really, I don’t often get the opportunity. 

Charles: Yeah. This is really your bread and butter as well. So we're looking forward to hearing how you do it, and hopefully our listeners can take something away from what we discussed today. So you joined Weightmans back in 2006 as BD director. How was the firm's approach to using data to shape what you do? And how has that changed in the last 16 years? 

Sarah-Jane: Yeah, it's a long time, actually. It's my work anniversary this week, so, yeah, 16 years this week. Long time, obviously, because it is quite a long period of time and things have changed quite a lot in the time that I've been at Weightmans. I think when I first joined, like many firms back in that period of time, we did very little with data. From a marketing and business development perspective. And so I think it would be fair to say that we've come a really long way over these last years and probably in reality more so in the last sort of five years than we had in the preceding sort of ten, because I think that's just the way of the world, I guess, and how things have gone. But we're now in a really positive position, I think, and we have a huge amount of data available to us around clients and contacts and how successful our comms and BD activity is. And because we are able to measure all sorts of things, we're able to take a much more data driven approach to what's working for us, and therefore, what do we want to do more or less of and what are our next sort of steps. So we've come a long way, but I feel like we're in a reasonably good position at the moment, which is nice, which is positive, obviously. 

Charles: So it sounds like back in the day when you first started there, the data driven approach was very much a nonexistent thing. 

Sarah-Jane: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we really didn't as a team. We did very little measurement of what was happening, what results that was delivering. So it really was back then. I would go so far as to say that we pretty much didn't have data on anything. So it was the case of starting from absolute scratch, but we built that up over a long period of time to get us to where we are now. I don't think it's ever a quick fix, obviously, is it? And you have to start sort of capturing things before you can start measuring against that setting metrics, which is the approach that we take now. 

Charles: So why do you think that data has become a strength for your firm when so many other firms have found it quite a challenge? 

Sarah-Jane: Yeah, that's an interesting question because I guess it's a combination of things, obviously, as these things always are. So Weightmans has, as many people will know back in the day, a really strong insurance heritage. And so from the perspective of what our clients wanted us to capture about the work that we were doing for them, I think that was what set us as a firm on that journey of focusing on data and how we can use data to help us in all sorts of different ways. So I think that probably was the starting point, which obviously has nothing to do with marketing. It's just that that's the way that the firm had to approach it from a client perspective. And then that perhaps makes you collectively a little bit more forward thinking in how then do you use data in different ways? And we also have some people will have heard of Stuart Whittle, who's now our chief technology officer, but over the years has headed up the sort of overall business services function, and he had a real vision around how we could use data and technology to help us as a firm. And I think because of that, we're a firm that takes a firm wide view on data, and that means that kind of everybody is used to capturing data for all sorts of different reasons and working with it. And so in a sense, it's almost then become second nature and kind of fully integrated part of how we approach day-to-day things. So that's really helped. And, of course, that doesn't mean that it hasn't been a long and sometimes really hard journey to get to where we are, but at least everybody kind of has the same vision, I suppose, and is used to dealing with data and a bit more understanding. So maybe that's what's helped us in comparison to other firms. 

Charles: Yeah. Going back to where it all came in, that sort of industry that you operate in, the clients sort of shaped it and sort of got it started. And then the people at the firm, the likes of Stuart, who you've mentioned, and obviously Dr. Katrina Waltendon, who we always see speaking at all the events, they're the sort of pioneers that you've got driving that forward?

Sarah-Jane: Yeah. And I think you always have to have some people initially, don't you, who've got a vision that's slightly different, and I think in Stewart and Kat, the two of them very much have that, and that has been of enormous benefit to the firm overall and to the rest of us being able to kind of pick up from them some ideas and thoughts because they champion it so much. We've all kind of got on board. So that has been really helpful, I think, in a marketing and BD context as well. 

Charles: Brilliant. What does it take to get to this point where data is available and useful across the firm? What was that process like? 

Sarah-Jane: The honest answer is it took a lot of hard work and collaboration, but I guess these things are always a little bit like that, aren't they? I think that we're lucky at Weightmans in that we have a really sort of strong culture of collaboration, and a lot of our business services directors, myself included, have been here quite a long time now. We all get on very well together, and so that helped us, I think, work on these projects in a very much a collaborative sense. So I would say that we all kind of take this firm first approach to projects and whatever it is that we're doing. And so I guess we all give our own different perspectives on either a particular problem or we talk about what we're trying to achieve in our own areas, and then we end up sort of working together to get to where we want to be. So that, I think, is a big thing, that sense of working together in collaboration because to deliver the marketing and business development data that we're now using, it's taken obviously input from our finance team, from the IT team, from our data services team. So we simply couldn't have done what we have done without that collaboration working together. So I think that's been really important. And I think the other really big thing for me is a technical thing, really, which is that our It team have done some absolutely incredible work in creating a data warehouse across, which is that data warehouse enables us to join together all the data from all the different disparate systems that we use as a firm. So our practice management system, our finance system, our CRM system, all that data goes into the data warehouse. And what that means in practice is that we can pull together all the different bits of data from different sources and look at it in whatever way we want, whichever cut of that data we want, joining different bits from different systems together. And that's all pretty seamless because of the data warehouse. So that's an incredible piece of work that the IT team has done that makes a real difference to us on a day to day basis. And then I guess the other thing is that as I mentioned before, because the whole firm looks at data from a client perspective, and internally, I think the other aspect of this is that we're very much reliant on all sorts of people across the firm capturing the data that we want them to capture in the right way and in the right places, because without that, none of the report you can create a nice fancy report. But if the data isn't in there, then it's still not going to tell you anything. So that's the other aspect of this is that you have to get, whether it's partners or the lawyers or the finance team, you have to have people capturing the data that we want to make this work. So that part of this has been really important as well. So as you would expect, there's quite a lot that goes into this in lots of different ways to get to the point where you've got the data that you need and it's useful and it's correct and it's available to people across the firm to use in different ways.

Charles:  Well, actually that leads very nicely onto my next question, which is how in their day to day work, how does the average BD and marketing professional use this data that's on offer to the?

Sarah-Jane: In all sorts of ways. Our starting point with this, my starting point was always that we had to it would be no good designing processes and reports and capturing data if it wasn't aligned with what we're doing. In a kind of business as usual way, if you create something that's completely separate, then it doesn't really add anything, and then it's very difficult to get people to buy into it and use it. So we've tried to embed the data, the metrics, the reports, as an integrated part of everything we do. And so as a consequence, the team are just kind of second nature, as I said, to use this sector as part of their day-to-day jobs. So in terms of the different parts of the team, but for marketing and comms, then they're looking at things, data around client engagement with our kind of comms activity, with a view to looking at how that informs the types of content that people are interested in? And therefore what should we be doing more of, and perhaps less of. And it also helps from a client development perspective because the client development team are also then able to see which contacts at particular clients are most engaged with us, what they've looked at, what events they might have been to, whether they pass content on to other people in their organisation. So that helps us in all sorts of ways around our content strategy and understanding client engagement. We're also looking at things in that part of the team. The digital team is looking at and tracking website interactions, leads from the website, and our conversion rates on leads from the website. So we can link that all the way through to revenue generated from leads to our website. And we do a similar sort of thing in terms of campaign activity. So we can look at the activity, the work leads that has generated, and then ultimately, hopefully the revenue that is generated out of those work leads. So there's a lot going on in that kind of comms and digital side of the team. But then also from a business development perspective, a lot of what they're looking at from a data perspective is around our sales and pipeline of sales opportunities. So they'll be tracking what we have in the pipeline for each of our areas of business, what stage of the sales cycle is at the value, the conversion rates again for different parts of the business, and then how that tracks into revenue. And then we've got a lot of data around, obviously, client revenue and profitability and that sort of thing. So on a day to day basis for business development, they're looking at a lot of those sorts of things and manipulating that and using it to help us help part with what should the next steps be. 

Charles: It sounds like the BD and marketing team, they've all sort of got their own individual roles and what they do and how they use the data. You touched on it just then when you mention the partners, but what interactions do the lawyers themselves have with this data? Do they directly interact with it, or does that come from the BD and marketing team?

Sarah-Jane:  I think it will be a combination of both is the honest answer to that. And inevitably in different areas of the firm, different sectors, they have a different level of engagement, as you would expect with anything across any firm. But I think it's probably more embedded than it will be in most firms in terms of the way that the partners and other lawyers are interacting with this sort of data. We have created a dashboard where we use Tableau at Weightmans. I know some firms use Power BI and things like that, but Tableau is basically a very similar sort of thing. So we've been able to create a dashboard which presents all of the things that we want partners to be looking at from a marketing and business development perspective. And it's presented in a really visual way. And they've all got live access to that so they can self-serve that whenever they want. So that will again, be it's got a range of things in that dashboard, but things like the sales pipeline performance of particular clients or clients in particular sectors, and then the campaign performance for their sector or area of business. So they can look at that whenever they want to. And quite a lot of people do, particularly the people that are in the roles, leading particular areas of the business. But those dashboards are also used regularly in meetings. So that's where I suppose people in my team will be in a meeting that they might be talking about the pipeline for a particular sector, and they will have that dashboard up on screen, and they will be all with the partners talking through that because we've tried to get to a position and it's not perfect, inevitably, but we have tried to get to a position where that dashboard is viewed as the sort of single source of the truth around our sales activity and our pipeline. So when each sector is looking at targets and growth, they'll be using that dashboard to see what their current position is and what's likely to convert in the next month or three months or whatever. And then, of course, they've all got access to our CRM system anyway. Again, they might be looking at the CRM live, as it were, to see what's happening with a particular client, if it's a client specific meeting. So I think probably overall, there's a lot of day to day interaction with this data that is quite focused, and that's something that we built up over time. As I say, it's not perfect. It's still a work in progress because we've got some areas that are better than others that use it, the data that we provide and the reports that we provide. But I think it's improving almost month by month because we've got into that room and people have seen the value of it. So it has become part of that just normal way of doing things. And when you're having meetings, it's normal and natural for everybody to want to look at the data source now, which is, again, positive, I think. 

Charles: Yeah. It sounds like those dashboards really serve as a way to keep things simple for the lawyers and I guess for your team as well. But would that be right? 

Sarah-Jane: Yeah, because I think you can have so much data, can't you? And I think it is really important, as you just said, to sort of bring it back to something that's quite visual and quite simple so that people can get more used to using it. Again, that's one of the things we've learned, I think, over the past couple of years in particular, because although we used to have all of this data before that, when it was either in spreadsheets or it was in separate reports or lots of different things that we would have to email people. And that was quite difficult in fairness for people then to find the right email, open it up, look at the report, understand what that's really telling them. But by creating the dashboard, there's kind of one place for them to go. It's got all the information they need and different sort of screens. It's all really visual with different types of charts and whatever, it's live, it's easy for them to manipulate and filter by that particular area or in some cases by individual. So it makes it really straightforward and simple and as you say, focuses them on just the things that we really need them to be worried about looking at. Even though there's lots of other data that sits behind all of it, we don't need them to worry about all of it so we don't show them all of it. 

Charles: Yeah. So you're keeping it relevant so you're not flooding them with loads of nonsense, I guess. 

Sarah-Jane: Yeah, exactly. Because you could go on ad infinitum, couldn't you? And you could present all sorts of things, but I think we can get to a point where it becomes really confusing and then that's counterproductive. So we have tried to keep it fairly straightforward and focused on the things that we really need them to know or we really need them to do something about. And that so far is working reasonably well. 

Charles: So one of the themes that I've got from a few of these questions that we've been discussing is there needs to be this immense sort of collaboration in place, this sort of firm first approach. That's been one of the sort of takeaways I've taken from this discussion. But what would be your one piece of advice to CMOS and their teams looking to make data one of their strengths? What would be your key takeaway

Sarah-Jane: I think that you need to have a vision of what you want to achieve and then find the data that helps you get there and sort of backs up what you're trying to achieve. But you have to be as we just talked about, you have to be really careful not to over engineer it and not to go for too much in one go. As I said, I think at the beginning of this, it has taken us at Weightmans a number of years to get to the point that we are now. I think you just simply can't do it all at once and all in one go. So it's having that vision, focusing on a couple of key things and then building it up from there and just staying really clear about why you're asking people to capture particular data or use particular data and stick to that and just keep going. But keep it simple, as we were saying just before.

Charles:  Yeah. I like the idea of that approach, having a vision, but also not getting ahead of yourself and keeping it simple and understanding and appreciating that it does take time. 

Sarah-Jane: Yeah. I think that's really important because otherwise you'll just get depressed because these things, my experience, these things always take longer than you think they're going to or than you would like them to. And you just kind of have to be quite fragrant about it and accept that that's the case. But keep kind of plugging away and moving forward. And even if it's baby steps, as it were, that's okay because you'll get there in the end. 

Charles: Brilliant. So, Sarah Jane, it's been an absolute pleasure to chat. I'm conscious of the time and we must wrap things up. But thanks for sharing some of your insights. I love that point we finished on - have that vision, but keep it simple and be flexible so thanks again for sharing your insight and what you guys are up to at Weightmans. Thanks again.

Sarah-Jane: Thanks very much. Thanks for having me. It's been great.


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